Morgan State University President David Wilson revealed the latest enrollment figures and discussed Morgan’s growth plans during a wide-ranging talk Sept. 7 with members of the Roland Park Civic League. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Most years, Morgan State University in Baltimore had an enrollment of about 7,460 students. This fall, it set a record for both its incoming freshmen class, about 2,400 students, and its total enrollment, 9,660.

For the first time, more than half of incoming freshmen came from out of state, forcing administrators to scramble to find enough student housing.

The record numbers have forced administrators to consider imposing a temporary cap on student enrollment for a few years, until they can build more student housing and complete other campus construction projects.

They also raise questions about what Morgan can do as an “anchor institution” to lift the area around it – and Baltimore and Maryland in general – while it also plans a satellite campus in Africa.

University President David Wilson revealed the latest enrollment figures and discussed Morgan’s growth plans during a wide-ranging talk this month with members of the Roland Park Civic League, which invited him to speak.

Roland Park is about 3 miles — or about a 12-minute drive — from the Morgan State campus, but Civic League president Claudia Diamond invites speakers from all over the city to talk about important work they do. Wilson, Morgan State’s president since July 1, 2010, spoke for more than half an hour on Sept. 7 about changes on the campus and the semester that began Aug. 22, starting with the record enrollment.

For the last two years, Morgan State has recorded “the largest number of both incoming freshman in the 155-year history of the institution and the largest enrollment ever,” Wilson told the audience.

In 2021, “we had roughly 2,250, in terms of incoming freshmen. That was a 65% increase over a yield that we normally have at Morgan, which is about 1,500 freshmen.”

This year, “we are going to surpass where we were last year,” he said. “In terms of total enrollment, when I picked up my cell phone this morning to look at our total enrollment: 9,660. The average enrollment at Morgan has been around 7,460, so we are up 2,200 students at Morgan. Morgan is the fastest growing public university in the state of Maryland.”

Of the 2,400 students in this year’s freshmen class, Wilson said, 55% came from out of state – the first time most freshmen haven’t come from Maryland. In all, the student body includes people from 70 countries.

“The brand of the institution has just caught fire,” Wilson said. “We have students from Utah, from Montana, from the American South, a slew of students from California and Nevada…. They are yearning for the type of education that Morgan is providing to our students.”

The number of applications was up as well.

“This year the applications to Morgan were around 20,000,” Wilson said. “We had to close our application portal two months early, because we don’t have any place to put students and so therefore why accept applications if you know you cannot house students and you don’t have the space to provide them with the top-quality education that they deserve?”

Morgan opened a 670-bed residence hall this summer to accommodate some students and rented rooms in the Lord Baltimore Hotel and other off-campus sites for others. It has plans to complete another 670-bed tower in 2024 and a 600-bed project after that, giving Morgan nearly 2,000 more beds on campus since before the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Wilson said the increase in applications and admissions has led to talks about capping enrollment for a while, until construction is complete on more on-campus housing and other projects in the works.

Given the interest shown by the number of applications, “we could easily get 12,000 to 15,000 total if, for example, we had the capacity to enroll them and the residential [facilities to house them], but we don’t,” he said. “And so, believe it or not, we’re starting a conversation at Morgan – I can’t believe I’m saying this – about capping enrollment for a period of time so our new residential halls catch up” with demand.

Shared vision

Founded in 1867, Morgan State is a Carnegie-classified doctoral research institution that serves a multiethnic and multiracial student body, offering more than 125 academic programs leading to degrees.

One of the country’s historically Black colleges and universities – HBCUs – Morgan State has benefitted from some large donations in recent years, including $40 million from MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and $20 million from alumnus Calvin E. Tyler Jr. and his wife Tina – as well as support from the state of Maryland, Apple, Google and many others.

In his talk to the Civic League, Wilson said he believes one reason for the strong interest from students is the Board of Regents’ “shared vision” of making Morgan “the premier public urban research university in the state of Maryland.”

Morgan is “the only comprehensive doctoral research university, public, in the city of Baltimore,” he said. “We like to say that we are to the city of Baltimore, in terms of public higher education, what Johns Hopkins is in terms of private higher education.”

Most thriving large cities have a vibrant public research university, he said.

“If you look across the United States at any city of the size of our city or larger, you will not find a thriving city that does not have a very vibrant public, comprehensive high-research doctoral institute,” he said. “So we aim to be in Baltimore what Georgia State is to Atlanta, what the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is to Milwaukee, what, if you will, Temple University…is to Philadelphia. Basically, that is sort of what is guiding the continued elevation of Morgan.”

‘We are Number One’

Today, Morgan is a leading source of African American graduates in many fields, both in Maryland and nationally, Wilson said.

“We are Number One in the state of Maryland in producing African Americans in about 20 fields — 20,” he said. “All of the STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] fields. We are Number One in the state of Maryland in producing Blacks in electrical engineering, in civil engineering, in industrial engineering and in engineering overall. We are Number One in the sciences — chemistry, biology, physics. We are Number One in social work, Number One in journalism. You go down the list and Morgan is Number One.”

Morgan ranks high nationally as well, he said.

“We are Number One in the nation in producing Blacks in electrical engineering,” he said. “And our students are all over the United States. They are at Google and Facebook and Intel and Apple. They are at Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman…They are in the state of Washington. They are everywhere…We are Number One in industrial engineering and we are Number Four in the United States in producing Blacks in engineering in all fields.”

A campus in Africa

Besides elevating Morgan’s stature in the U.S. to a very high research institution, “we want to also enhance our global presence,” Wilson said. “We will be opening a campus in Africa. We’re looking to collaborate with the African University College of Communications in Ghana. The board has already authorized us to offer three degrees there. We have relationships with many countries where they are sending some of their public lecturers without a doctoral degree to Morgan to get their PhD and they go back to those countries to populate their faculties, and so we are in a position where we are growing the next generation of the professoriate in Nigeria and in other parts of Africa and are doing the same thing in Brazil and other countries as well.”

Another reason for the higher enrollment this year, Wilson said, is that Morgan’s ‘retention rate” has improved.

“We have really put in a lot of work at Morgan around increasing our retention rate, which is the number of students you enroll as freshmen who return as sophomores,” he said.

“When I came to the institution, we had a retention rate of about 65%. That basically meant that about 35 students [out of 100] who basically started out as freshmen were not returning as sophomores. So we went inside of those numbers to figure out what’s going here, and basically it’s no secret. What was going on was that the students, like Calvin Tyler, ran out of money and they could not finish, so they had to figure out a way that they could actually get those college degrees — sometimes not at Morgan, sometimes six or seven years later.”

Wilson said Morgan has focused on finding ways to help students stay at Morgan once they enroll, largely by increasing financial assistance and other means.

The $20 million gift from the Tylers, for example, went to an already-established scholarship fund, the Calvin and Tina Tyler Endowed Scholarship Fund. It initially gave full-tuition need-based scholarships to students from Baltimore, Calvin Tyler’s hometown. It has since been expanded to benefit students from anywhere.

Thanks to the Tyler Fund and other initiatives, Morgan has had a retention rate “in the 70s” every year for the past 11 years, he said. “That has never been achieved in the history of the institution.”

In addition, “Morgan has won three national awards for institutional effectiveness,” Wilson said. “About 25% of our students are first-generation college-going students, just like their president. And we take every single student at Morgan – those who come to us with a 1550 [SAT score] or a 950 — we take them where they are and we elevate them absolutely to where they need to be in order to compete on the world stage with anyone, anyplace, anywhere, anytime.”

Wilson also talked about:

Raising graduation rates: “We are a quest to raise our graduation rates. We are marching toward 50 percent…You have to understand that the average graduation rate for all blacks in higher education in America is about 42 percent. That’s across all institutions — Big Ten, University of Chicago, everybody. So we have exceeded that national average by about 20 percent. That’s our goal. It’s well on track.”

Capital improvements: Morgan is in the midst of a “$1.1 billion capital transformation of the campus,” Wilson said. Already open: an $80 million School of Business Management and an $85 million Behavioral and Social Sciences Center. Still to come: a $171 million Health and Human Services building opening in the summer of 2024 and a $250 million Science building opening on Cold Spring Lane in 2027, plus the additional residential halls and a new medical facility in place of the old Montebello State Hospital at 2201 Argonne Drive.

Instilling pride: “We want to make sure that, starting with our students and our alums…that we show our colors, orange and blue. Every place I’ve been, universities have been just showing their colors. Colors, if you will, are about pride…. You can’t go anyplace in Alabama unless you see the orange and blue, Auburn, or red and white, Alabama. You can’t go anyplace in Wisconsin unless you see red and white [for the University of Wisconsin.]

“When I arrived here, there was nothing, nothing on the Morgan campus, externally, that said orange and blue. So we basically decided on a Morgan Pride effort here. The first thing was, we had one of our prominent alums, who worked for an architectural firm out of New York City, to design the Legacy Bridge. You see this bridge coming across Hillen Road. It was the first example of our saying: Morgan takes pride in [being an] anchor institution in Northeast Baltimore and in the city of Baltimore.”

This heritage theme has since spread throughout the campus and beyond, and is a source of pride for students and alums, Wilson said.

“You would be amazed at the feedback that I get from alums and others who now drive through the area and just [say] ‘Wow! I am so proud of this institution!’ Because it is showing themselves in the way in which they see [themselves], and in which institutions in other places show themselves as well.”

Making Morgan a strong “anchor institution” for Baltimore: Besides expanding globally, Morgan wants to be a strong “anchor institution” for Baltimore, Wilson said.

To do that, “we have to focus initially on what is close to our campus, he said. “Morgan cannot be an institution that is an island unto itself. If we are here celebrating all of our awards, celebrating our ascendancy, and the neighborhoods around us are falling apart, what good is that? We are a community, and so we all must rise together.”

That philosophy motivated Morgan’s effort to work with private developers to renovate the rundown Northwood Shopping Center, now known as Northwood Commons after a $50 million upgrade.

“We took very seriously: What does being an anchor institution in Baltimore City mean?” he said. “And for us it meant, initially, we have to redevelop this dilapidated shopping center that is in our backyard.”

‘Emotional scars’

Of all the building projects he’s worked on in Baltimore and elsewhere, Wilson said, “the Northwood development project was the most difficult. It was the most difficult and, by comparison, the smallest. And what made it difficult was, Number One, so many emotional scars. So much anger around the history. So much resentment on the part of the neighbors towards the family that owned that center, that still owns it, and was determined not to reinvest anything in it because it was debt-free and they could charge the rents that they charged to support their lifestyle in Florida.”

Residents of the neighborhood around the shopping center “did not want that family, generations later, to benefit from the history that they had perpetrated on that neighborhood,” Wilson said. “I tell you, we would have community meetings and the tears would be flowing. We just had to go through periods there where we had to wrench ourselves, myself included, of what was standing in the way of that. And I as the university president had to understand that my view of what success was, was so out of line with the community’s view.”

For example, “we did a study and we had a rendering of what the new center might look like, with a charrette, and that study revealed that once this is done, the average equity in the homes here is going to increase by $20,000. And so I came to a community meeting and that was the first slide I put up — What’s in it for you? Number One: Your home value will increase by $20,000 — and I’m waiting for the applause, right?

“I had two people stand up there and they almost shouted me down: ‘That’s why you don’t understand us. How long have we been having this conversation?…Our home value is going to increase by $20,000, but what about our taxes? I’m on a limited income. Are you going to help us pay those?’ So then I had to kind of back away from that and try to work through how do we work with the community to get them to a point where they can see value, perhaps a little bit differently, and that’s what we did.”

Developers David Bramble and Mark Renbaum worked with Morgan on the retail center in the 1500 block of Havenwood Road, and its first tenants opened earlier this year. They include a branch of the Lidl grocery store chain, two banks, places to eat and services such as a dry cleaner.

“This particular project was the first bite off the apple to show that Morgan can be an anchor institution in this corner of the city by first paying attention to what is in our backyard,” Wilson said. “This in an area where the community said that ‘while we understand the value and importance of Morgan, and we support your being an anchor institution, this shopping center can’t be all about Morgan. This has to be about us, too.’ And so that’s what we are developing there now.”

Buying Lake Clifton: Purchasing the former Lake Clifton High School and grounds from the city of Baltimore, an acquisition that Mayor Brandon Scott announced earlier this year, will give Morgan another 59 acres to expand its campus.

Lake Clifton offers a chance to plan for the future as opposed to addressing immediate needs, and Morgan intends spend some time in deciding how to develop that property, Wilson said.

“The way that we’re going to approach this is by playing, if you will, the long game,” he said. The goal is to create “a shared vision for that 59-acre property. We’re not going to rush it.”

As part of the planning process, there will be “tremendous community input,” he said.

“We have to step back and understand that what we are building today, to use a metaphor from our Native American ancestors, we are planting trees and we’ll never be able to fully appreciate the shade of those trees. We are starting fires, but we might not ever be in a position to be warmed by those fires. We’re digging wells, and during our lifetime we may not ever be in a position to drink any water from them.”

As Morgan builds out Lake Clifton, “it’s not about what we want…today, that might not have any relevancy in five to seven years,” he said. “It’s about how you bring together the collective wisdom – think 30 years from now. How do we put something there today that will be just as relevant 30 years from now as it is today? That’s the hard work and that’s what we are about.”

America needs more institutions like Morgan to be competitive: “I serve on a number of national boards and have been involved in…so many significant conversations about the future of higher education in America,” Wilson said. “And in those conversations, be it with the Secretary of Education, be it at the White House, be it at the corporate space, I always say if the conversation doesn’t start with How do we multiply institutions like Morgan, to enable the country to be more competitive, to stay competitive long-term, we’re not having the right conversation. Because I know in my 13 years at Morgan, I know what that institution has done and has continually done. And I know that with appropriate investment, that that output could double or even triple without in any way diminishing the quality.”

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Ed Gunts

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

4 replies on “Morgan State University President David Wilson on this year’s record enrollment and expansion plans, including a campus in Africa: ‘The brand of the institution has just caught fire!’”

  1. Thank you for the great article! Please check the distance from Morgan to Roland Park – it is definitely not 12 miles.

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